Gastronomica, Summer 2009
by Francine Segan
At Trattoria Vascello d'Oro, a fabulous eatery in the quaint town of Carrú in northern Italy, the waiter sets down "the house specialty," a fragrant Marsala-laced stew. The dish's oddly spiked bits of meat immediately grab my attention. I recognize most of the ingredients—pieces of sweetbread, diced veal, bright specks of carrots and red peppers—but not the spikes. What are these morsels that look like the fingers of a doll-sized tiny woolen glove? Despite years of monthly stints in Italy, my husband and I had never encountered this dish. Our friends, natives of Tuscany, were equally clueless.
We take a taste. The spikes are slightly gelatinous, with hints of delicate frog-leg flavor. "Delicious," is the consensus.
Owner and chef, Guiseppe "Beppe" Cravero, an affable and dramatic character, notices our scrutiny and proudly introduces the dish, "la finanziera." No help there. The term "finanziera" is related to the Italian, "finanziere," for financier, banker, or customs officer. Holding up one of the pointy tidbits, I ask what it is. "Ah, the most important ingredient," he replies in Italian, "cock's comb."
Cock's comb? Perhaps I don't understand the word properly. "You mean those little wobbly red things on the top of a rooster's head?" I ask to clarify. "Si, si," he assures me.
Let me backtrack. I am the author of four cookbooks on historical food, among them Shakespeare's Kitchen about Elizabethan fare and Philosopher's Kitchen about dining in ancient Greece. I know many ancient Roman, medieval, and Renaissance recipes calling for odd ingredients like peacock tongue, sheep paunch, sparrow brains, heifer udder, camel feet, and even rooster testicles and yes, cock's comb. The latter was a key ingredient in pies and stews in ancient Roman times and a decorative garnish through the late 19th century. Maestro Marino's 1450's Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), for example, includes a recipe for "Cock's Comb Pie with Testicles," a tart combining the title ingredients seasoned with sour cherries, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, "and plenty of sugar."
So, the fact of cock's comb as a culinary ingredient does not surprise me. What is shocking is that it is being served today in modern Italy. How had I, a foodie always on the look out for the new and strange, never tasted finanziera in all our years visiting Italy? Why didn't our Tuscan friends know of the dish?
Trattoria Vascello d'Oro's owner quickly provides the answer. "Finanziera is a dish found almost exclusively in Piedmont and is served only during the winter," he explains. Neither our friends nor we had ever tasted it before because, prior to this year, we had only visited Piedmont in the summer. Pulling a tray of cock's combs out of the restaurant's freezer Chef Beppe continues, "to have enough for the winter I begin in the summer cutting off and freezing crests from every chicken we cook." And even that is not enough! Beppe also asks three of the area's butchers to save all their crests for him. It takes 1,000 crests to make every hundred portions of finanziera that he serves.
Cleaning the crests, which have a thick outer skin loaded with feathers, is a labor-intensive task. The feathers are plucked and any tiny strays, burned off with a flame. The crests are then washed, blanched, and soaked in lemon juice to loosen the tough skin. The entire staff, even the bus boys, gather around the kitchen table every Wednesday to peel off this outer layer. "You have to handle the crests gently, like a beautiful woman, so as not to ruin the pretty tips," Chef Beppe laughs.
To prepare finanziera Chef Beppe cooks the peeled crests, along with rooster wattles and testicles, as well as sweetbread, calf's brain and veins, veal, and tiny meatballs in oil seasoned with garlic, rosemary, bay leaves and other herbs. Finely diced vinegar marinated vegetables (giardiniera), as well as an extra splash of vinegar; dry Marsala and chicken broth provide the dish's classic sweet and sour flavors.
"Most Italians— outside of Piedmont—have never tasted this dish," explains Beppe, "in fact, I would guess that only 50% of native Piedmonts have ever had it. When someone comes into the restaurant and orders finanziera the staff knows he or she is a true gourmet. It is a wonderful dish, rich in flavor and history," he adds.
To trace finanziera's history I visit the famed gastronomic teaching and research center, Academia Barilla, located in the beautiful city of Parma. Besides renowned cooking and wine appreciation classes in state- of-the-art facilities, Academia Barilla is home to one of Italy's best gastronomic libraries. The gracious staff and knowledgeable library curator, Giancarlo Buonitzi, are eager to assist researchers. Among their more than 8,000 archival treasures, including rare one-of-a-kind manuscripts, menus, and beautifully illustrated texts. Indeed, the staff succeeds in uncovering numerous references and information concerning finanziera.
Finanziera is a French and Piedmont dish of the late eighteenth century. Cock's comb stew is cited as a favored dish at court feasts of Carlo Emanuele I, Duke of Savoy in Piedmont, from 1580 to 1630. However the name, finanziera, was not attached to the dish until the late eighteenth century. The exact etymology is uncertain, but there are two theories. One holds that the dish's main ingredients, including cock's comb, constituted the fee poor farmers paid at the city's gate to enter the town. Another theory asserts that dish—a lunch favorite among Turin's 19th century businessmen—is named after the special elegant jacket uniform, called la finanziera, which all bankers wore back then. Several early 1800s texts mention one Turin restaurant in particular, Ristorante Del Cambio, as key to the dish's roots.
So the next stop on the finanziera quest is the elegant Turin establishment, Ristorante del Cambio, which first opened in 1757 and still—today—features finanziera on its menu. Daniele Sacco, Del Cambio's gracious director, confirms that the dish was a favorite of 18th and 19th century businessmen, and points to a small portrait of Count Camillo Benso, a patron of the restaurant and leader in Italy's 1800s unification movement, who frequently ordered la finanziera. On another wall is a framed menu dated 1895 that lists finanziera, as well as a ragu of cock's comb over steak, as main course options. "Del Cambio has been offering finanziera here for more than 200 years," explains Mr. Sacco.
The restaurant, whose patrons have included such dignitaries as Laura Bush, Luciano Pavoriti and Henry Kissinger, serves several thousand portions per season but mainly to their Piedmont clients. "Sadly, when tourists hear the ingredient 'cock's comb' they don't order the dish," continues Del Cambio's director. "A pity, as it is an exquisite connoisseur experience," he adds. The only change to their 200 plus year-old recipe is the switch from Marsala to Barolo wine, a famed red wine of the Piedmont region made from the Nebbiolo grape, "Barolo creates a more delicate, refined finanziera," he explains.
Cock's comb recipes from the 15th century:
Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino da Como,
Recipe courtesy of Academia Barilla (www.academiabarilla.com)
Per far un pastello de creste, ficatelli et testiculi di galli:
Taglia ciaschuna de le creste in tre parti et li figatelli in quattro, et li testicoli lasciali sani et togli un pocho di lardo et taglialo ben menuto, ma non lo battere. Et togli doi, o tre once de bon grasso de vitello et battilo molto bene; et meglio farai con la medulla del bove overo de esso vitello; et habi trenta o quaranta cerase brusche et secche, et cannella et zenzevero, assai zuccharo et rafiuoli pochi et meschia tutte queste cose inseme, et fa' un pastello et ponilo a cocere nel forno, o ne la padella. Et quando è mezo cotto togli un rosso d'ovo, et zafrano, et agresto, et batti inseme et mittele nel dicto pastello, et lassalo stare tanto che sia cotto.
To make a pie of cock's comb, chicken livers and rooster testicles:
Cut each of the cock's combs in three parts and the livers in quarters, and leave the testicles whole; take a little finely minced, but not pounded, lardo. Add two or three ounces of good veal fat and pound it well; it would be better if you had ox marrow or that of veal; and take thirty or forty dried sour cherries, cinnamon and ginger, lots of sugar and a few "rafiuli" (vegetable greens? Ravioli?) and mix all these ingredients together, and make the pie crust and cook it in the oven or in a pan. When it is half cooked add an egg yolk and saffron and verjuice, beaten together, and put into the pie and leave it to cook until it is done.
Modern recipe for la finanziera
Adapted from Trattoria Vascello d'Oro
Serves 6 main course portions
4 veal chops
8 tiny beef meatballs
8 cock's comb
8 rooster testicles
1 veal testicle
3 1/2 ounces calf brain
3 1/2 ounces mix of calf veins and sweetbreads
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon rosemary
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup dry Marsala wine
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons all purpose white flour, plus more as needed
5 ounces giardiniera (assorted vinegar packed vegetables), chopped
5 ounces oil packed porcini mushrooms, chopped
Brown each ingredient — veal chops, meatballs, cock's comb, wattles, testicles, brains, veins and sweetbreads — separately in a large skillet in oil, adding more oil as needed. Remove the bone from the veal chops and dice the meat. Set all cooked meats aside.
In a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients, slowly sauté the garlic, rosemary and bay leaves in butter until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the meats and Marsala and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, stock and flour; stir to dissolve the flour and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Add the giardiniera and mushrooms and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Trattoria Vascello d'Oro
Via S. Giuseppe, 9
Carrú, Italy 12061
Telephone: (+39) 017375478
This trattoria is a favorite among Piedmont natives, who travel hours for
regional favorites like bollito misto, an exquisite array of delicately
boiled meats that are oh, so much more tasty than the name suggests.
The restaurant is host to Carrú's yearly Festa del Bue Grasso, Feast of the Fat Cattle, which takes place the second Thursday before Christmas and is a must-see. Guests begin lining up for the delicious feast fare at 6AM.
Lovely hotel rooms above the restaurant are available to rent by the night or week.
Largo Piero Calamandrei, 3/A
Parma, Italy 43100
Telephone: (+ 39) 0521 26 40 60
Fax: (+ 39) 0521 26 40 50
800 number while in Italy: 800 376 116
A food lover's Mecca, which provides cooking demonstrations, wine tasting
classes, and various culinary events in state-of-the-art ultra modern
facilities located right in the center of downtown Parma.
They also arrange truly exceptional regional gastronomic tours and have one of Italy's most comprehensive cookbook collections.
Ristorante del Cambio
Piazza Carignano, 2
Turin, Italy 10123
Telephone: (+39) 11 546690
Fax: (+39) 11 535282
A must-try for any serious foodie visiting Turin. The Old World service and ambiance as well as the food and wine list make for a truly memorable dining experience.